More Tedious than Comic

If you missed the first publication of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August in India in 1988, you now get a second chance. Chatterjee’s comic coming-of-age novel about a recent college graduate resonates. With what and with whom is highly subjective, but the fact that it was picked up by New York Review Books and classified as a “classic” means that it resonated with many. This reviewer, however, is not one of them.

Moral lassitude seems to be a hot commodity in novels these days, right up there with all manner of victimization and substance abuse. Though the novel is meant to be a parody of the tedious and frustrating career of those in the Indian Administrative Service (I.A.S.), I found it more annoying than funny.
Set in 1988, it follows the life of Agastya Sen, a recent college graduate who joins the I.A.S. This is a rather elite job for the pot-smoking, masturbating, pathological liar nicknamed “August” for his love of all things English. Adding to August’s desultory existence in a bureaucratic job he seems quite suited to is the fact that he is stationed to a remote outpost in Madna, an uninspiring place for someone with little or no ambition:

Glimpses of Madna en route; cigarette-and- paan dhabas, disreputable food stalls, both lit by fierce kerosene lamps, cattle and clanging rickshaws on the road, and the rich sound of trucks in slush from an overflowing drain; he felt as though he was living someone else’s life.

The slow pace of the book, meant to reflect the tedium of August’s everyday life, is sometimes so sluggish as to deflect attention from what is being said to how it is said: it just goes on and on and on. Glimpses into August’s mindset are probably the most humorous when they are set aside from all “action” or lack of it. Agastya is so irritating that it is better to hear about him from someone else:

“… administration is an intricate business, and a young officer who lacks initiative cannot really be trained in its artifices. There is very little that he can learn from watching someone else; Agastya learnt nothing. For a very short while he worried about his ignorance, and then decided to worry about it properly when others discovered it.

This book, called the Indian Catcher in the Rye, is sure to hit a nerve with the Generation X. Everyone else just might sigh and scratch their heads.

—Michelle Reale

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